So you want to travel in Asia for the first time. Where should you go? What are the best countries and destinations for your first trip to Asia. Well, I’ve traveled to most of the countries in SE Asia and I’d like to help you out. But there’s no easy answer. Here are four options for first time travelers to Asia.
Before you decide, it depends a lot on what you’re looking for and how long you have. You might want to hit the big ones – China and Japan. Or you might want to hit the cheap ones – Thailand, Cambodia. You might want culture, or you might just want beaches. Here are a couple thoughts to consider before you decide where to travel in Asia your first time.
Singapore can be done in a day and a half. The best thing to do is to stay in Little India and visit Chinatown.
In Chinatown, visit the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum just down the street from the Sri Mariamman Temple (Hindu), which isn’t far from the Jamae Mosque (Muslim). That’s Singapore in a nutshell – a harmony of cultures.
At the Buddha Temple go upstairs to the free Buddhist museum on the 3rd floor. They have tons of Buddhist relics from around the world and have done a good job telling the story of Buddha in a designed path through the museum. Take your time. Read a bit. Learn a bit.
Then hit up the stairwell and sneak up to the roof. You’ll find a lush rooftop tropical garden surrounding a large Buddhist prayer wheel. Grab the wheel, walk in a circle and make a prayer. It’s okay. You’re allowed to be there.
For lunch, go behind the museum to the Chinatown Complex (food hawker center). There are 1,000 food stalls. Take a deep breath and find a stall that sells ‘chicken rice’. When I was there it was #172. It should cost S$3. Wait for it. Make sure to take the little tray of red sauce. The dish will look bland – you will be surprised.
This may sound obvious, but your passport is critically important if you plan to travel between countries. The first 10 or 15 countries you visit, this will be obvious. But be careful not to drop your guard just because you haven’t lost it yet. This was my mistake.
Breakfast coming from Seoul. Lunch coming from Beijing. Dinner in Bangkok. It was the beginning of another sure-to-be-memorable vacation abroad. Plans included rock-climbing in Vietnam with Mixto and Huevos (aka the plumbers), whom I hadn’t seen in over 2 years since volunteering together in Peru. Then, planned to meet Taylor and his girlfriend, Nina, who I hadn’t seen since graduation from college together. These were four people you can’t help but be excited to see.
Tenggol Island is a lesser-known island sitting of the east coast of Malaysia. The more well-known Perhentian Islands in the peninsular northeast and Sipadan Island off the east coast of Borneo steal the glory from little old Pulau Tenggol.
Well, when Jack and I took a trip to Malaysia last Summer, we wanted to experience the world-class diving Malaysia has to offer. Knowing of the popularity of the Perhentians, we asked our respective Malaysian friends about quality dive spots with fewer travelers. Pulau Tenggol was the response.
Our first meal fresh off the plane in Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysia set the stage for the rest of the trip. Mr. J Chan, a friend I met 2.5 years ago in New Zealand, was nice enough to pick us up at the airport and take us directly to lunch. J Chan told his friends that he was going to take two Americans for their first meal in Malaysia and asked what they recommended. Multiple friends suggested he take us to eat banana leaf rice and better yet, most suggested one restaurant in particular. So that’s where we went.
Banana leaf rice is a seemingly simple dish. First, your “plate” is a banana leaf, rolled out in front of you like a placemat. Then a generous scoop of rice is plopped in the middle. Next, come an assortment of curry sauces and vegetables. That’s the basic dish, and it’s meant to be eaten with your hands.
Not wanting us to miss any of the good stuff, J Chan felt it a good idea to order a bit more. So, our meal had the addition of fried spicy calamari, fried chicken, and fish. One difficult, yet fun, part of eating the meal was trying to do so the traditional way – with only your right hand. As an American, it’s not a way of eating that I’m used to, but in actuality, it’s a more practical way of eating once you get used to the correct method. (Hint: scoop the food onto your fingers, and push into mouth with thumb)
Here’s a video we filmed on Jack’s iPhone of us eating banana leaf rice. (sorry for the low quality – hit the four arrows to go full screen):
What the heck is a Hawker Food Centre? First and foremost, it’s the one place you can’t miss if you travel to Singapore (or Malaysia). Secondly, it’s delicious, cheap, clean food served food-court style. The problem is that Hawker Food Centres (HFC) can be a bit overwhelming if you don’t know what you’re getting into.
There are several HFC’s all over Singapore in Little India, Chinatown, and elsewhere, so it’s not that hard to find one. What you might find difficult is choosing the best food stall to order from when there are so many choices, most of which look delicious. So here’s the best way to attack the HFC’s.
1. Decide what you want to eat.
Do you want chicken rice, char kuay teow, satay, or fish ball noodles? The last thing you want to do is get stuck wandering around an HFC trying to decide among all the options. Everybody else will know exactly what they want, where they’re going, where they’re sitting, and how to do it all. This only makes things worse for you if you don’t. I recommend chicken rice – it looks simple, but if you choose a good stall, you’ll be amazed how delicious it can be.
2. Choose a stall serving what you want.
Rule of thumb – look for the places with a queue. The locals know what’s up, and if they’re waiting in line, it’s because it’s worth it. Also, look for the busy cooks. The chefs standing around aren’t busy, which tells you a lot. The best stalls sometimes even sell out of food completely, so don’t be afraid to go earlier rather than later.
3. Order the dish and then sit down.
You can sit anywhere there’s a sit. Don’t worry about sitting close if the nearby tables are taken. The hawkers will bring you the food. If you’re out of view, point to let them know.
4. Pay when you get the food.
If you’re a foreigner, they might let you wait until you’ve finished eating, but it’s standard practice to pay when the food comes.
5. Don’t worry about cleaning up.
In Singapore, there are specific people paid to keep the HFC’s clean. As you’ll soon notice, Singapore is a very clean city.
Bonus Step: Watch the video the below: Know Before You Go. It’ll give you a few images of the Chinatown HFC in Singapore.